“It really don’t matter if I lose this fight …
All I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed. And if I can go that distance, and that bell rings, and I’m still standin’; I’m gonna know, for the first time in my life, that I weren’t just another bum from the neighbourhood.” (Rocky Balboa 1976)
They say that everyone loves the underdog, because everyone can relate to the underdog. No matter what level you’re performing at, no matter which sphere of life, everyone feels that they are not given a fair crack of the whip. I disagree. I believe that everyone loves the underdog simply because people love it when someone rises from the ashes. People love it when someone comes along and defies popular belief, defies logic. Someone who makes the hair stand in the back of your neck out of sheer ignorance to the boundaries of normality; Someone who can reach out with the smallest arm and touch greatness, reminding us all that the world is full of magic; Someone who can inspire the uninspired. In 1976, a 30 year old part-time boxer rose from the ashes and shook the heavyweight champion of the world. In 2010, Aston Villa can banish the odds and create football history by gate crashing the Premier League top 4 in true, inspiring, underdog fashion.
With four teams jostling for position as we enter the home straight in this enthralling league campaign: Aston Villa sit seventh place, 6 points from fourth. Liverpool, City and Spurs, all above them in ascending order, are amongst the top 5 spenders in the league. Liverpool, boasting the likes of big money signings Torres, Johnson, Mascherano and Aquilani, have of course the pedigree to clinch the Champions League spot once more – but they look wounded. Tottenham have had the unique capability to acquire six players dearer than Villa’s transfer record, on top of the ridiculous bonus of countless £7m – 12m additions. Indeed, 3 of Spurs’ plus £15m crew have, in effect, been deemed surplus to requirements at the Lane with Darren Bent plying his trade elsewhere, Robbie Keane shipped north of the border and record signing David Bentley featuring 8 times in this year’s league campaign. But for whatever reason, they aren’t good enough. No need to analyse Man City’s money matters.
And so, as every tide turns and every dawn breaks, every writer wants to tell the story of the underdog. Sometimes they fall short, sometimes they don’t exist. But the mere principle of the idea of an underdog is enough to make people believe that if they themselves push, if they themselves dig, then they themselves can find special things inside. People want to believe. And trying to look at the Premier League run in from a neutral point of view, it is very difficult to see how anyone could be cheering for anyone else besides Aston Villa for the top 4 spot. History would suggest that Liverpool will take the scalp. Finance would point to the overpowering of Manchester City. The Media would back their London darlings Tottenham Hotspur, and the “people’s manager”, Harry Redknapp. The bookies split the odds in 3, with a patronising mention to the ‘outsiders’. How fitting would it be therefore if the underdog were to prevail victorious in the face of unfavoured chance. How fitting would it be if the unchanged 13 names on the Villa team sheet were to gather enough momentum at such a late stage in the season to steam roll right over the top of their fancied opposition; and in doing so, casting aside the chaining myths of history, finance and odds.
With the most predictable first XI in the league, O’Neill’s side is really only boosted by the use of two other squad players in John Carew and Luke Young. Yes, in Randy Lerner, we have a superb chairman with a generous wallet and a coveted trust in the team’s manager. Of course, we don’t have the spending might of City or Spurs, or the lure of Liverpool Football Club, but Aston Villa has spirit. Aston Villa has the voice of ’82 whispering behind them and the capable hands of Martin O’Neill in front of them. Aston Villa has a closely knit pack of players who are not only talented, but play for each other and their manager. O’Neill has moulded an harmonious English-speaking environment and has steadily increased it’s productivity each year. The manager is a conqueror. I remember when he first joined, a quote from his former Celtic centre back, Stanislav Varga, emerged saying something like,
“The players must prepare for the day O’Neill looks them in the eye and asks, ‘do you believe you can be a winner’…”
Securing trophies at Wycombe, Leicester and Celtic, Martin O’Neill knows what it takes to be a champion and surely would not be hanging around if he didn’t believe he could make winners out of Villa. He is an expert at building an imprinted squad to play how he wants – very much like his former employer, Brian Clough. And somewhere out there, Cloughie is sparking up a cigar and watching his protégé emulate his ability to turn middling clubs into champions. Somewhere out there, Cloughie has a smile on his face because of the re-emergence of the underdog.
More importantly though, Aston Villa has a hell of a fighting chance. With 11 games remaining, the ball is very much in our court and although we may have the least populated squad, the least experienced individuals and the least amount of points; the stage is set perfectly for a true underdog story – and crucially, like Rocky had his left hook, Aston Villa have Martin O’Neill.
The underdog has nothing to fear and everything to gain. The underdog dismisses norms and demythologizes his opponents. Deep down, the underdog is never out of the race. The underdog is relentless in the fight, and do you know what? … A puncher always has a chance.